Engineering Rome

A Comparison of the Colosseum and Stadio Olimpico


In the heart of Rome, Italy lies two beautiful and well-known stadiums: The Roman Colosseum and Stadio Olimpico. The Colosseum, built just under two thousand years ago [1], attracts millions of tourists each year with its ancient wonder, while Stadio Olimpico holds intense soccer matches, with thousands of spectators cheering on their favorite teams. Both are important structures that have significantly impacted Rome’s culture, and after visiting both this past summer, I can confirm firsthand they are must-see landmarks. The Colosseum, displayed in Figure 1 below, was more impressive than anticipated; it is difficult to wrap my mind around the structure’s age and grand nature, built so long ago. On the other hand, Stadio Olimpico, pictured in Figure 2 below, reminded me of other stadiums I have been in…except everyone spoke Italian. However, I felt Rome’s connections to entertainment and building in both stadiums.  After visiting, I still had many questions about the structures and wanted to explore more about them. In this article, I will compare the two stadiums, and find they are surprisingly similar for projects built almost two thousand years apart.

Figure 2: A wide view of the inside of Stadio Olimpico (Photo: here [17])

The Colosseum

Beginning with the Colosseum, I had many questions while visiting the incredible structure: how big it is, what it is made of, and the features it has. In-person, this ancient stadium is huge, which makes sense because it is the biggest building of its kind [7]. Figure 3 shown below gives an example of what the Colosseum looked like when it was first built.

Planning for the Colosseum, originally called the Flavian Amphitheater, began in 70 A.D., but construction did not commence until 72 A.D. In 80 A.D., the amphitheater was dedicated by Emperor Vespasian’s eldest son, Titus [9]. More fascinating information on the history of the Colosseum can be found here.

With a footprint of about 24,000 m², or around 6 acres [5], the Colosseum draws the attention of anyone nearby. There are some disagreements about its shape, but the most widely agreed upon is a free-standing elliptical stadium. More information about other shape arguments can be found here. At about 620 feet in length and 513 feet in width, the Colosseum is three times as wide as an American football field and almost twice as long [3]. The arena itself is 249 by 144 feet [4], roughly half the size of a standard soccer field. The Colosseum was originally 159 feet tall [4]. This allowed for four levels of seating. Each level had a designated audience demographic allowed to sit in that area [5]. A cross-sectional representation of the seating arrangements can be seen below in Figure 4.

Emperors showed their power and love for their citizens by providing a great show in the Colosseum and free food throughout the day. Entrance to Colosseum games was also free, and spectators received numbered pottery shards as tickets. These tickets indicated an entrance, section, and row, much like the arena seating systems we use today [6]. With free tickets and free food, the emperors knew how to motivate attendance. Seating in the Colosseum was determined by Roman law. Thus, the seats reserved for the most important audience members were the closest to the arena. The emperor had his seating area near the stage called the ‘emperor’s box’ [5]. The less important the spectator, the farther away they sat from the entertainment. Senators also enjoyed the pleasure of sitting at the lowest level on marble seats with their full names painted on them [15]. The seating was raised 3.6m above the arena and had a 37-degree gradient to ensure all spectators could view the stage [4].

The Colosseum structure is supported by arches built on a base of two steps [4]. Figure 5 below gives an example of an arched window in the Colosseum. Arches were used to distribute the weight of the structure [5]. Every floor had 80 arches, each divided by pillars with a half column [4]. As shown in Figure 6 below, each story had a distinct type of column supporting its arches. Starting at the bottom, simple Tuscan-style columns, a Roman variation on the Greek Doric columns, were used. Then Ionic columns were implemented and finally, the third layer consisted of ornamental Corinthian columns [1]. On the ground floor, the arches are 2.4m wide and 7.05m tall (13 feet 9 inches and 23 feet 1 inch). On the upper floors, the arch heights were reduced to 6.45m tall (21 feet and 2 inches) [4]. The niches in the arches originally held statues, making the Colosseum a spectacular sight [6]. While the first three levels only consisted of arches and statues, the fourth floor was not built in the same manner. It was made of flat panels originally decorated with carvings and insets of azurite and bronze [1].

Figure 6: Column examples from left to right – Tuscan, Ionic, Corinthian (Photo: here [1])

Spectators used 80 entrances to the stadium, 4 of which were specially reserved for the emperor and people of importance like senators, patricians, and visiting dignitaries [6]. The entrances were numbered to ease the intake of citizens. Figure 7 below shows an example of an arched entrance with a designated number in Roman numerals.

Organizing entrance was a very necessary process because the Colosseum held an abundance of spectators. The exact capacity is not completely agreed upon, but most sources give a range between 50,000 and 80,000 people. However, the more widely accepted number is the former. This number was split between 45,000 seated viewers and 5,000 standing [7].

Many materials were used in the construction of the Colosseum. The arena was wooden and covered in sand taken from the nearby Monte Mario hill [1]. The Colosseum also had an underground area, or ‘hypogeum’, beneath the floor [1]. What the present-day hypogeum looks like can be seen below in Figure 8.

Although the hypogeum had been part of the original plans, it was added after the building’s inauguration in 80 AD. The hypogeum, a two-level network of tunnels and chambers, had 80 vertical shafts through which the gladiators and animals held underneath could access the arena [1]. To keep the show versatile and entertaining, 32 trap doors were built into the hypogeum [5]. Large moving platforms and man-powered pulleys were used to lift large beasts and gladiators into the arena. There were also underground tunnels leading back to gladiator barracks, nearby animal stables, and for the emperor to move about safely [1].  

The principal building material of the Colosseum was travertine, a class of limestone. 100,000 cubic meters were used, 45,000 of which were solely for the outer wall. The ground floor had an average thickness of 90 cm and was made of this limestone. To transport the travertine from its origin in the Tivoli quarry, the Romans built a 24km long road [4]. Tufa, another limestone-based material, was also used in the project. Both travertine and tufa were put into stones for use in the structure. Instead of using mortar to hold them together, the Romans added an estimated 300 tons of iron clamps [6]. A full representation and dissection of each part of the Colosseum can be seen below in Figure 9.

The Colosseum also had a roof-type feature. It was called a velarium, and it was a rectangular awning. Figure 10 below gives an example of what the velarium looked like in use. The velarium was put out by Roman sailors using 240 wooden masts around the top of the stadium [5]. This made the entertainment more enjoyable and kept the spectators out of the hot sun.

Even though some parts are missing due to weathering over time, I felt dwarfed standing inside the Colosseum. The entire wooden fourth level was destroyed in a fire in 217. Furthermore, in 1349 an earthquake damaged the building. The earthquake caused an entire section of its outer wall to collapse [1]. Figure 11 below shows the broken wall. Also, like many other Roman buildings, the Colosseum was stripped of its expensive and desirable materials to be reused in other buildings. Some of the repurposed marble was used in the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica [9].

Stadio Olimpico

I also had many questions while visiting the Stadio Olimpico: how big it is, significant dates in its construction, and features of the stadium. Built against the green slopes of Rome’s Monte Mario and about four miles away from the Colosseum, Stadio Olimpico is the current home field of Rome soccer teams, S.S. Lazio and A.S. Roma. The relative positions of the two stadiums can be seen on the map below (Figure 12). Construction on Stadio Olimpico, beginning in 1927, was part of a larger complex called the ‘Forno Mussolini’. This was a fascist sporting complex started by Mussolini. The stadium’s original name was ‘Stadio Dei Cipressi’ or Cypress Stadium, and Mussolini built the complex intending to show off the might of Italy [13].

Stadio Olimpico underwent renovation and reopening in 1953. Renovations took several years to complete because work on enlarging the stadium was suspended during World War II. The inaugurating match after the renovation was held on May 17, 1953, with an Italy vs Hungary soccer game. At this time, the stadium was renamed to ‘Stadio dei Centomila’ meaning ‘stadium of a hundred thousand’ for the 100,000 spectators held at its opening match [14]. Another notable record of spectators in the stadium was just under 83,000 fans for the 1990 FIFA World Cup [10]. The stadium received its third and final name, Stadio Olimpico, when it hosted the 1960 summer Olympics. It transformed from a place of fascist propaganda to cordial competition and friendship [11]. Other notable matches held at Stadio Olimpico include two euro cup finals.

 In 1990, Stadio Olimpico underwent a large renovation in preparation for the FIFA World Cup. This renovation, led by architect Annibale Vitellozzi, consisted of adding a roof (seen in Figure 13 below).

Its roof, originally a cantilever roof, was replaced by a membrane structure that runs along the circumference of the stadium. It is a cable roof system that makes use of radially distributed cable trusses, a polycentric inner cable ring, and an outer anchorage system. The cable trusses vary in size and are distributed from two centers of the homothetic polycentric curves in the stadium in a radial direction. The trusses utilize a variety of cables including load-bearing cables, stabilizing cables, and vertical cables. To balance horizontal stresses from the radial trusses, a polycentric inner ring was used. The ring is made of 12 spiral, galvanized, full-lock coil cables 29m above the ground. The outer anchorage ring anchors the load-bearing and stabilizing cables along the outside to a space-framed rectangular ring [15]. The roof also has lights creating a fun and visible atmosphere for game viewing.

The seating capacity for the stadium is now 72,698 seats [14]. Stadio Olimpico’s grandstands are made of a reinforced concrete structure in a single-tiered style [12]. Seating in the stadium is divided into different sections. Because Italian soccer teams S.S. Lazio and A.S. Roma share the stadium, they have designated seating areas. Figure 14 below gives a visual representation of the location of each section. The northern curva belongs to Lazio fans while the southern curva is Roma territory. The Tribuna Monte Mario has dugouts, press boxes, and premium seats. This is where the most expensive seats are taken. Finally, the main stands, opposite Tribuna Monte Marie, are called the Tribuna Tevere [14].

Stadio Olimpico takes up about 55,000 m² of space. The playing field itself is 68 meters wide and 105 meters long [12]. To see a game on this pitch, spectators must purchase a ticket. A typical A.S. Roma game ticket is anywhere between $28 and $90 [14].

Today, Stadio Olimpico is an important part of the Roman city landscape and the backdrop for dramatic Roman rivalries. I, myself, got to experience the stadium in a soccer game between Monza and AS Roma (seen in Figure 15 below). It was a spectacular experience. The stadium erupted with noise for the entirety of the game. Fans cheered and sang before the match even started; the love of soccer culture from the attendees was palpable. The stadium itself made the atmosphere even more exciting. Navigation within Stadio Olimpico was clear and simple. After entering through my designated gate, I was able to find my assigned section and seat without issue. Overall, I would recommend the experience to anyone visiting Rome.

Comparison + Conclusion

Finally, I decided to compare these two grand stadiums. Both The Colosseum and Stadio Olimpico have played, and continue to play, an integral role in Rome’s history and culture. For two stadiums built almost two thousand years apart, I was surprised at how many similarities I was able to find. The aspect I found the most similar between the two is the roofs of both structures. The Stadio Olimpico roof only spans the circumference of the stadium, leaving a large open-air hole in the middle. This heavily resembles the Colosseum’s velarium, which also left an open-air hole in the middle to ensure there would still be light on the arena floor. Both the Colosseum and Stadio Olimpico had designated seating, although the Colosseum’s seating requirements were a bit stricter and were not up to the discretion of the spectators. On the contrary, any spectator watching a game at Stadio Olimpico can sit wherever they would like as long as they buy the ticket. How fans get to their seats in each stadium is a very similar system. Both the Colosseum and Stadio Olimpico specified entrances and sections to direct spectators to their designated place of viewing.

One upside about attending Colosseum events was entry, food, and beverages were all paid for by the emperor. This was very different from my experience at Stadio Olimpico, where the concessions within the stadium were overpriced (but still worth it).

As far as the stadium structures themselves go, they were pretty different. The Colosseum’s footprint is about half that of Stadio Olimpico. This is most likely due to the limited building abilities when the Colosseum was built. This size ratio also translated into the playing fields as the Colosseum’s stage is about half the size of a normal soccer pitch. Also, the Colosseum had an elliptical arena, whereas Stadio Olimpico has a rectangular field. While the Colosseum’s footprint is smaller, it was the taller of the two stadiums. This is what allowed for the Colosseum’s comparable spectator capacity. While Stadio Olimpico can hold approximately 20,000 more fans than the Colosseum could, the average Stadio Olimpico attendance is closer to 30,000 people [14]. This is well under the number of fans the Colosseum held. I can only imagine what a Colosseum event was like based on the A.S. Roma vs Monza game I attended. The screaming fans in the Colosseum must have created a similar atmosphere to those wholeheartedly invested in the soccer game. Having four stories in the Colosseum instead of one story of seating must have also made events more intense and hectic.

Overall, from ancient times to the present day, Romans deeply value their entertainment. Though switching to a less cruel form of entertainment, the Roman soccer culture is comparable to its gladiator ancestors. Funnily enough, Stadio Olimpico is located on ‘Viale dei Gladiatori’ or Gladiator Street [15]. An example of Gladiator Street after a Roma game can be seen below in Figure 16. This time, it is a new kind of gladiator taking to the stage in Stadio Olimpico. While the entertainment taking place on the field is different, the similarities between Stadio Olimpico and the Colosseum are surprising.


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